Botanical Excursion to the South-West of France 2012

 

Part 1: Landscape and vegetation of the forests:

 

In Part 1 I describe the vegetation of the forests, in particular the extensive pine forests of the Landes de Gascogne. I also give a brief description of the landscape.

 

Part 2 explores the vegetation of the coast, in particular the sand dunes

 

Part 3 is a documentation of gardens, parks, and other plantings in public spaces that I encountered on the journey.

 

(all photos available in a larger scale by clicking on them)

  

     
  I recently had the opportunity to accompany my son on a small part of his bike ride from Amsterdam to Spain. We met in Bordeaux and the journey lead us to the beach resort of Arcachon, past the largest sand dunes of Europe, through the endless pine forests of the Landes de Gascogne, and finally into the Basque country near the Spanish border, where the Pyrenees meet the Atlantic Ocean.

Bordeaux is an amazingly beautiful city, but we were also impressed with the charming city of Bayonne and the famous tourist resort of Biarritz. After crossing the border to Spain we enjoyed the architecture and parks in the old town of Hondarribia. The landscape was a bit monotonous for a long stretch of the ride. The beaches on the Atlantic coast, a few small rivers and a number of lakes were the only changes from the dense pine forests. Once we reached the basque country the mountains of the Pyrenees became visible in the distance, and the landscape, as well as the architecture, became more interesting.

. Riding the bicycle is the best way to experience a landscape, see plants and animals, feel the air, hear the cicadas and smell the forests.

     
Bordeaux is located on the Gironde river which is formed by the merger of Dordogne and Garonne. It is the capital of the province Aquitaine, which reaches from the Dordogne in the north to the Pyrenees in the south. The climate is temperate, bordering to a Mediterranean climate.

 

 
     
 
The landscape around Bordeaux is flat and dotted with small towns, fields, forests and some of the worlds most famous vineries.   The mild climate and the calcium-rich soils in the region of Bordeaux are perfect for growing grape wines. Red Bordeaux is usually made from a blend of different grapes.
 
Most of the coast of Aquitaine is sandy, with endless beaches and the famous "dune de pilat", with a base of half a kilometer and a height of over 100m (300 ft.) it is the largest sand dune of Europe. To learn more about the vegetation of the sand dunes see Part 2 of the Plant expedition to south-western France.   Most of the land that consisted of moving sand dunes only 200 years ago has since been stabilized and planted with forests.
 
The most important tree is the Maritime Pine (Pinus pinaster), and the forest of the Landes de Gascogne is the largest planted forest of maritime pine in Europe.   The large and very hard pine cones litter the ground in the forests, but selected plantings are used for the production of seed.
 
Female cones of Maritime Pine   Male cones of Maritime Pine
 
The bark of Maritime Pine is very thick and consists of numerous layers that insulate the tree from heat in case of a forest fire.   This young planting had to withstand a brush fire, and most of the pine trees have survived.
 
Large amounts of burnt timber washed to the beach are a reminder of the numerous forest fires in the north of Spain during this summer. These were so very severe that the thick bark was not enough of a protection and the trees were killed.   The paper factory in Mimizan makes good use of the abundant pine forests. The timber is also used for construction and an herbal medication rich in antioxidants is fabricated from the sap.
 
A wide variety of shrubs establishes itself on the lightly shaded woodland floor and where forests have been cleared.   A very common low shrub is the Sun-rose (Cistus salviifolius), here visible the sage-like foliage and dry fruits
 
The Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo) is a common evergreen shrub or small tree in the underbrush and on the edges of the pine forests. It is found all along the Mediterranean and north into Ireland.   The fruit of Arbutus unedo is green at first, turning bright strawberry-red when mature. It is edible but does not have much flavor.
 
The sandy soils tend to be acidic, and heaths feel at home in these conditions, here Erica cinerea   Very similar is Erica ciliaris
 
The Tree Heath (Erica arborea) can reach 10 ft and more in height. Since the wood is extraordinarily hard and also fire resistant, it is used to make smoking pipes.   The Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) often covers the ground in the pine forests. It has the tendency to be invasive.
   
In the summer, the visitor of the pine forests hears the ceaseless singing of cicadas, but despite their abundance might never see any of them. Their excellent camouflage makes them hard to find.   Closing in with the camera and taking a side view allows to see the cicada a little easier
 
The Maritime Pine is rarely replaced by other species. We found a Eucalyptus plantation (image above) in the south of the Landes de Gascogne   Quaking Aspen (Populus tremulus) was planted in a location with a high water table.
 
Rivers and creeks are overgrown with a rich vegetation that reminds me of gallery forests found along rivers in Africa.     A particularity of the region is that many of the rivers have difficulties reaching the ocean because they are getting blocked off by the sand dunes. As a result, a number of lakes has formed behind the coast line.
 
The vegetation around these lakes is rich and varied.   One of these lakes near the town of Biscarosse has proven to be quite useful to the Oil industry.  
 
Several species of oaks are also very common in the Gascogne. The most conspicuous is the cork oak (Quercus suber). It is an evergreen species with small leaves.   The thick bark protects this tree from brush fires. Since antiquity it is harvested to produce corks for bottles.
 
Oak forests are more common on rocky soils than on the sandy dunes.   The foliage of oak trees is often bluish-grey from a heavy layer of wax. Some species, such as Quercus pubescens, have fine layers of felt on the foliage, especially on the undersides, to provide protection from desiccation.
 
Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus) make for a good snack, but the sloe (Prunus spinosa) can only be eaten after a frost, and even then is better left to the jelly jar.   A pair of Jewel beetles (Fam. Buprestidae) visits the flower of a blackberry plant.
   
I found this perennial elderberry (Sambucus ebulus) on roadsides. It is a poisonous species and not eaten by cattle.     

 

 

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